Saturday, December 6, 2014


Folks who remember my old schooner Windfall remember her black hull, white trim and tanbark (dark red) sails. When I first acquired the boat in 1985 she had a white hull and white sails.  My ideal dream vessel in those days was the Baltic schooner Lindo (later Alexandria), a three-masted beauty which just happened to have a black hull, white trim and tanbark sails. Immediately upon purchasing my new schooner I painted her black and ordered red sails.

My sail maker tried to talk me out of the red sails.  “It was a 70’s thing,” he said, “Get over it.”  He was right, of course.  Sail makers are always right.  Whatever you may know about sails, you don’t know diddly squat.  Ask any sail maker.

It’s true that in the 1970’s lots of boat owners began to sport tanbark sails.  Some insisted they were traditional, dating back to the Age of Sail when men-o-war with darker sails were harder for an enemy to spot at a distance.  Others argued it was just the opposite: in the late 19th Century when steamships were making their appearance, a fishing schooner with dark red sails would be less likely to be run down in the fog than one with fog-white sails.

Hell, I don’t know.  My own argument was that I spend a lot of time staring into my sails in bright sunlight in order to keep them trimmed properly and there’s less glare from tanbark.  But truthfully?  I was smitten by the Lindo and it was, after all, my boat, my money.

And speaking of money, some of the purveyors of tanbark sails in the 1970s claimed that the darker sails were more UV resistant than white sails and would last as much as 40% longer. I found that somewhat plausible.  If you’ve ever kept a nylon American ensign past its prime, you might have observed as I have many times that the white stripes begin to deteriorate faster than the red stripes.

“Horesfeathers!” said my sail maker.  “If anything, the dyes used in the tanbark sails render them more vulnerable to UV rays.” 

Either way, there’s no getting around the fact that tanbark costs more.  The three new sails I just purchased for my schooner, Windfall II, would have cost $400 less if I’d settled for plain vanilla. Cheap bastard that I am, I would have done just that had my wife not weighed in.  “White sails on the schooner Windfall?” she cried. “That’s like Coca Cola  painting all their red signs blue!”

If I was enamored of the old black hull/ tanbark sail theme of my old boat I wasn’t nearly as much so as she was.  In the spring of 2010 when I replaced my old schooner with the smaller Windfall II, a white fiberglass boat with white sails like 95% of the sailboats in America, Sundae insisted I couldn’t sail her home from New Jersey before painting her black.  That was easy enough.

But replacing her perfectly serviceable sails with tanbark was going to require me to write another $5000 check on my sorely stressed bank account for nothing more than sentiment.  I had read somewhere about staining white sails with Minwax so I asked my friend Steve whose opinion on such things I trust. “Why not?” he said and I never looked back (although I probably should have – kids, don’t try this at home!)  It sorta worked but the sails always looked tie-dyed.  People were always asking me if the sails were made of leather! Ah well, my mamma always told me that if I can’t be a good example I should at least be a terrible warning.

Having recently been charged with the task of ordering a new 1200-square-foot mainsail for the skipjack Wilma Lee, I was impressed with the price I got from an Asian sail maker and asked them for a quote for new sails for the Windfall II.  They came back with an offer I couldn’t refuse.  After all, there’s a limit to how many times a guy can explain why his sails look all weird.  I was there and ready to move ahead.

My new sails shipped out of Hong Kong Tuesday evening.  The Fed-Ex truck pulled into my yard this afternoon (Friday) at 1:30.  The photo you see here was taken just after 4 p.m.  I’m impressed.

Let’s go sailing!

Thursday, February 27, 2014


                                            Photos by Bill Monticone

Mention boat ownership to almost anybody and you’re almost certain to be bombarded with platitudes about the constant cost and/or drudgery of maintenance. A few examples:

  • B.O.A.T. stands for “bring out another thousand!”
  • Boating is grand. And then another grand. And then another…
  • A boat is a hole in the water into which the owner pours money!
  • The two happiest days in a boat owner’s life are the day he buys the boat and the day he sells it!
  • “Sailing,” according to The Sailor’s Dictionary, “is the art of getting wet and becoming ill while going nowhere very slowly at great expense.”
  • Before buying a boat you should stand in a cold shower with all your clothes on, tearing up $100 bills!

So why bother, you might ask. I guess it’s because when we think of our boats, we tend to dwell more on those rare few isolated moments when we’re out underway and everything is as it’s supposed to be. The weather is balmy and clear. There’s just the right amount of wind and from the right direction at that. The engine starts when you need it to and purrs like a well-fed kitten. All systems are working perfectly. The bilge is dry and free of flammable/explosive substances. All of your passengers are in good health and spirits (or, perhaps better yet, you’re single-handing).

If we were honest about it, those moments may only exist in our dreams, but it’s thinking of them that loosens our grip on our wallets (and reality).

For most of us, the major hassle and expense falls in the spring when it’s time to go to the boat yard to haul the boat ashore to prepare it for another season of mostly sitting idly at an expensive dock slip oxidizing the paint, blistering the varnish and cultivating a healthy garden of marine growth on the bottom.

What the typical wealthy yacht owner does is to take his boat (or have Jeeves take it) to a nearby yacht yard where it is handed over to a professional staff of highly paid specialists who clean, sand, prep and paint everything before returning the vessel to its owner along with a staggering bill. Very expensive.

The rest of us always seek out “Do-it-yourself” yards which are also very expensive but allow you to do grueling, filthy, back-breaking work on your boat while exposing your lungs, skin, eyes and ears to highly toxic dust, fumes and liquids in hopes of saving a few bucks. This seems to be just another illusion with which we poor boaters delude ourselves.

After a long winter of basically indoor weather, I was feeling the need last week to have one of those spiritually uplifting boating experiences. The forecast looked not-so-bad for sailing across the sound on Thursday, hunkering down for a rainy blow on Friday and then punching back across on Saturday.
Then, as Thursday approached, the extended forecast began to go south on me so I decided to give up my cruise in exchange for a long, leisurely day sail. I packed some sandwiches and invited my friend Bill along.

Although the weather was pleasant enough, the experience was disappointing. On starting the engine, I discovered a dead battery – not a big deal since there are three others in the system, but enough to create some doubt about the condition of the others. Would there be enough juice to fire up the diesel when it came time to drop the sails?

Then we cast off the lines and put her in gear. The boat oozed out of her slip at about half her usual speed, a clear indication that the propeller was fouled with barnacles. When we put up the sails and stopped the motor, the boat’s continued sluggishness confirmed what we’d already suspected: that the hull itself was badly fouled.

On the bright side, a pod of dolphins decided to tag along and they hung around with us for three solid hours which I believe must be some sort of record, due no doubt to our slow pace. The engine started when needed and we finally called it a day. But as soon as I got home, I went online and ordered a battery and telephoned a boat yard to arrange a Monday morning haul-out. I had, after all, skipped last year’s haul-out by diving under the boat and scraping the hull a couple of times during the summer.

The forecast looked promising for sailing (O.K. motor-sailing) down to Beaufort on Saturday, but even so, I donned a wet suit Friday morning and gave the prop and waterline a quick cleaning. I’d decided to try a boatyard I’d never been to before, Ted and Todd’s, partly because it was down wind and partly because it had been highly recommended to me for years by boating friends who were regulars of theirs.

As usual , Bill was up for it so we laid in provisions and headed out Saturday morning at first light. The hull and prop cleaning had made enough of a difference that we soon realized we could make Beaufort before dark, but rather than spend all day Sunday in the industrial side of town, we opted for dropping the hook in a beautiful wooded anchorage in Back Creek at about 3 p.m.

On Sunday morning we had the kind of breakfast that makes cruising such a pleasure: hot coffee, orange juice, mixed fruit, eggs, country ham and English muffins as we watched the fog lift in the sunrise. A bald eagle flew over. We sat for a while in total silence, appreciating the fact that, peaceful and quiet as Ocracoke is, if you just shut up and listen for a minute there’s always sound. Someone’s heat pump, traffic on the road, a barking dog. Even the surf.

We motored down the waterway and arrived at the boat yard well before noon, tying alongside a commercial fishing boat at the yard’s service pier. We had an interesting chat with Kevin, a crew member staying aboard while the captain took some shore leave. He told us a bit about life 200 miles out long lining for swordfish in the previous week’s icy weather. No thanks!

Monday morning we met Ted, the owner, and his father Gary as the yard crew began showing up at around 7:30. This is a no-nonsense commercial yard. Although there were a few sailboats, mostly under 40 feet, they were vastly outnumbered by large trawlers. Sitting high and dry on the yard’s marine railway was an enormous steel commercial fishing boat which was about half-way constructed. A busy welding crew worked on it the entire time we were in the yard.

We backed my schooner into the slipway and disconnected the backstay to allow clearance for the travel lift. Ted operated the lift and out she came. A friendly chap named Milt did a superior job pressure washing the hull and scraping the barnacles (all included in the very reasonable price of the haulout). The schooner was lowered onto large wooden blocks and supported with prop stands. By eleven o’clock the boat was dry enough to paint. I ordered new sacrificial zincs which Gary picked up for me at the local supply house. These were attached to the propeller shaft and rudder gudgeons to protect them from electrolysis.

Bill replaced the zincs while I applied the copper antifouling paint to the schooner’s bottom with a roller. The boat was lowered back into the water at a quarter past two and we were on our way! That was undoubtedly the shortest time I’ve ever taken on a haul out. We had time to visit the Morehead City yacht basin to take on fuel and motor the 15 miles to our anchorage in Back Creek before sunset.

On Tuesday we were once again away at dawn for a long slog into a cold NE breeze and a nasty chop on the Neuse River and Pamlico Sound. But with the chart plotter and auto pilot (to say nothing of a smooth, freshly-painted hull) things could have been a lot worse. We arrived home at 2:30, now loyal converts to Ted & Todd’s fantastic boatyard.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014


It's a question I get asked all the time but I'm not always sure what it means. “What do Ocracoke's year-round residents do here in the winter?” “What do I do here in the winter?” “What is there for a visitor to do here in the winter?” These are all possible interpretations of the question.

First of all, people who have the contrivance to be elsewhere usually avail themselves thereof. My son, f'rinstance is off at college. Would I trade places with him? Twist my arm! My wife has taken our 7-year-old daughter and gone to spend a week in Columbus, Ohio where, even though it's miserably cold, they at least have snow to play around in (to say nothing of museums, bars, movie theatres and shopping malls.) Of all the family, it's just yours truly and our 15-year-old left to hold down the fort.

So let me tell you about today. My day here on Ocracoke only two days after the groundhog assured us six more weeks of this misery. I was dreaming away on the king-sized tempurpedic which I had all to myself when my alarm brought me rudely back into the harsh here-and-now. I could easily have rolled over and slept two or three more hours but I had to wake up my tenth grader and get her off to school.
This usually involves at least three rounds of negotiations finally culminating in death threats (but I no longer take them all that seriously).

After a breakfast of her home-made granola and yogurt along with two cups of coffee and a fistfull of meds (the joys of old age!), we rushed out the door and hopped on the golf cart (yeah, I've got one – if you can't lick 'em, join 'em – you're not going to get there any faster than the golf cart in front of you even if you're in a Ferrari!). Half way to the school we were both cold and wishing we'd brought the van.

Back at home I threw on a down vest and watch cap and took a brisk walk down to the docks to check on my vessels. Returning to the front yard, I noticed that the wind had blown over our recycling container so I walked over to pick it up and that put me in full view of our back screen porch whose door has been ripped to shreds by our cat. There were other tasks on my mental “to do” list, but it occurred to me that I bought some “pet resistant” screen at Lowe's three years ago for this very issue and never got around to replacing the screen.

Amazingly, I happened to remember where I'd put the screen (in the corner of my wife's office, where else?) so I went to get it along with the necessary tools. I methodically gathered together everything I'd need for the job. It seems like half the time I spend on any task is actually wasted in searching for a tool (like a pencil for Pete's sake!) which, as often as not, is behind my ear. I quickly saw that, in order to remove the aluminum molding that holds the screen, I would need a Philips screw driver. In my tool shed I was readily able to locate an assortment of screw drivers but the only Philips was a cordless drill bit and the drill, of course, was not in the shop. I'd left it on my boat. Or was it the other boat? Maybe my car? The one my wife drove to Ohio!

So I got on the golf cart and went down to the boat. I knew I had at least one Philips screw driver in the drawer that my cruising friend Bill calls “the place for everything.” That's in response to my telling him that my motto is “a place for everything and everything in its place.” Eureka! I found two Philips screw drivers and brought them both back to the house. But before I could remove the aluminum trim, I had to remove a rusted steel turnbuckle – one of those long gadgets that you have to turn once in a while to keep the bottom of the door from scraping the floor when it closes. It was too rusty to turn so I made a mental note to buy a new one at the hardware store.

After removing molding, trim and torn screen, I measured and cut the new screen. Then I hopped onto the golf card for a quick run to the hardware store for nails and the new turnbuckle. Of course they had what I needed but the turnbuckle, which I had expected to cost $2.50 or maybe $3.00 was $8.49 plus tax! “Outrageous!” I complained to Jim Piland, the unflappable clerk. “I'll go clean up my old one and put it right back.”

Back in my shop, I carefully placed the rusted turnbuckle in the vise on my work bench. Then I applied a liberal shot of “P.B. Blaster” to it (as well as to my vest and pants – that stuff really squirts!).
Then I clamped on the vise grips and gave it a hefty turn. “Snap!” So much for that thrifty idea.
A few minutes later in the hardware store Jim Piland rang up my purchase of a new turnbuckle with an inscrutable Budhistic smile.

On the way home it was time to pick up my girl for lunch. As we sat across the table from each other eating our soup and crackers it wasn't much like a scene from Ozzie & Harriet. She was feverishly texting on her phone while I read an article in the New Yorker. All too soon it was time to run her back to school. God forbid she should walk or bike the quarter mile jaunt down Back Road. Hard for me to understand since, like all members of my generation, I as a kid had to walk two and a half miles to school in the snow (up hill both going and coming!) but I digress...

Invariably when I take on a project like this screen replacement, there will be one tool or piece of material which I know I own but can't seem to locate and without which, of course, the job simply can't be done. After a long and futile search I always end up going to the hardware store to get a new such item. Then, when I finish using it, I carefully put it away – right next to the original item! In fact, in all my prior screen replacements, the needed item has been the little grooved roller thingy that presses the strip of rubber into the aluminum molding to secure the edges of the screen. Not this time. I remembered exactly where to find the tool. All three of them!

If my wife were here, no doubt we'd have had this conversation:

Wife: Rob, where are you?
Me: Out on the screened porch.
Wife: What are you doing?
Me: Replacing the screen on the door where the cat tore it up.
Wife: How long will that take?
Me: Probably about an hour.

And in a perfect universe it probably would only take an hour. But it's not a perfect universe; it's Ocracoke in the winter time. My house. My tools. Me doing the job. So what if, with one thing and another, I don't finish it until suppertime? There's nowhere in particular I need to be or anything in particular I have to do before some time in April when the place starts to come alive again.

Thursday, January 30, 2014


Brrrr, me neither! Just looking at my schooner with her thin coating of ice is enough to reaffirm my admiration for the “iron men” who used to sail her wooden forebears far out into the freezing North Atlantic from New England and Canadian ports every winter in pursuit of the elusive codfish.

As I comfort myself with the knowledge that my boat is, after all, securely moored in a sheltered harbor and that in a couple of days, 60-degree temperatures will melt all the ice, I think of the men who would routinely climb the rigging with axes in gale-force blizzards to chop away the ice before it had time to amass enough weight to capsize the vessel. Just all part of a day's work!

If you are skeptical when someone says, “They don't make men like that anymore,” did you ever hear tell of Howard Blackburn? In January of 1883, this Nova Scotia-born Gloucester fisherman was dory fishing for halibut from the schooner Grace L. Fears off the coast of Newfoundland. In a sudden snowstorm, the 24-year-old Blackburn and his dory mate Tom Welch lost sight of the schooner. Welch gave up hope and died after the first night of bailing the dory and busting the ice off its rails but Blackburn continued on for five days at sea without food, water or sleep, rowing the dory (with Welch's corpse) 60 miles with his mittenless hands frozen around his oars until he reached the coast where he buried Welch before losing all of his fingers and one toe to frostbite. Returning to Gloucester in the spring, he opened a successful tavern where he amazed customers with his ability to palm coins off the bar with his fingerless hands.

But Blackburn never lost his love of adventure. In 1897 he joined a Klondike gold-prospecting schooner cruise around Cape Horn which ended in failure. Two years later he sailed the 30-foot sloop Great Western from Gloucester to England (alone and fingerless, no less)! And in 1901, he topped that by sailing the 25-foot sloop Great Republic from Gloucester to Portugal.

Of the Gloucester schoonermen Blackburn was among the more fortunate. He did, after all, live to the ripe old age of 72. As the Gloucester fishing fleet sailed out each winter, it was just a sad fact of life that some would not return. 1879 was probably their worst year with 29 schooners and a total of 240 men lost at sea. Of that number 13 schooners and 143 men perished in a single February gale.

And for what? Well, it all depended on luck. That and, of course, skill and backbreaking hard work. But if you didn't drown (and, as you can see, that was a pretty big IF) and if you managed to luck into a good catch of fish (another IF), you had a good chance of making a very decent living – two to three times the average family income. The fishermen were all paid in shares so they were likely to do better economically than their wage-earning brethren ashore if they could just manage to stay alive.

In my early schooner sailing days back in the 1980s, I was reading one of my favorite books on the Gloucester schooners, Fast & Able: Life Stories of Great Gloucester Fishing Vessels by Gordon W. Thomas,(1952). The book is full of detailed accounts and photographs of 76 schooners.
I read about the schooner Mary F. Curtis, one of two fishing schooners chartered by Hollywood film studios for the 1937 movie Captains Courageous with Spencer Tracy. She carried cameras, film and equipment valued at $30,000 which was believed at the time to be the most valuable cargo any Gloucester schooner had ever had on board. The summer that I read that, I was sailing sunset cruises out of Hilton Head Island, S.C. And it occurred to me that it was a slow night indeed when my passengers on any given trip were not wearing more than that amount in clothes and jewelry!

I didn't contemplate turning pirate for more than a half hour before realizing that the number just seemed low because of a half century of inflation.

I have to admit that in this sort of weather, I'd a hell of a lot rather read a good book about sailing than go sailing myself. So if any of this has sparked your interest, in addition to Gordon Thomas's above-mentioned book, you might want to check out works of the late Joseph E. Garland. Like Down to the Sea: The Fishing Schooners of Gloucester, (Boston: David R. Godine, 1983) or Lone Voyager: The Extraordinary Adventures of Howard Blackburn Hero Fisherman of Gloucester, (Little, Brown 1963).

                                                          Howard Blackburn

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Wilma Lee Returns to Ocracoke

                                          The skipjack was returned to her element on Thursday.

Wilma Lee is back at the dock in Ocracoke after nearly two months in the boat yard. Last Friday Tom Pahl, Bill Monticone, my son Emmet and I defied the time-honored sailors' superstition against beginning a voyage on Friday and made the 45-mile trip down the sound from Wanchese.

Sundae (my adoring wife) said, “What!? You're going to leave on Friday?” Well, leaving on a Friday might have been tempting fate, but waiting until Saturday would have guaranteed a miserable slog to weather in much colder temperatures and a gale on the nose. Been there. Done that. No thanks!

Years ago, a friend of mine who was a captain of large merchant vessels told me he was leaving in the morning for New York to take command of a container ship bound for Holland. Although the ship would be loaded and ready to depart at noon on Friday, they were not departing until 12:01 Saturday morning. I told him I was surprised that a large shipping company would be superstitious enough to waste time and money like that. “Oh the company's not superstitious,” he explained, “but the seamen are. If word got out that we planned to depart on a Friday, half the crew would jump ship!”

According to an old legend, the British Admiralty once became so annoyed at Jack Tar's reluctance to sail on a Friday that they set out to show how silly the superstition was. They commissioned a warship on a Friday, laid the keel on a Friday, Christened it “H.M.S. Friday” launched it on a Friday and sent it to sea on a Friday under the command of a Capt. Friday. Needless to say, she was neither seen nor heard from ever again!

Of course I don't believe all that bilge. I'm not superstitious. But before we reinstalled the mast I did place a Sacajawea dollar coin under the base of it, heads up. I couldn't believe the folks that last stepped the mast had overlooked that formality. Not superstitious mind you but hey, no point in being a damn fool about it!

Thursday, January 2, 2014


Topping my list of resolutions is to post more stuff to this blog to keep my loyal readers abreast of the ever-changing developments with the various vessels with which I’m involved.

The skipjack Wilma Lee, after a reasonably busy first season, is high and dry in a boatyard in Wanchese.  Philip Howard, Hunter Collins, Steve Musil and I took her up there a few weeks ago for annual maintenance and a Coast Guard dry dock inspection.  We had hoped for a nice westerly wind to sail her up the sound but what we ended up with was no wind at all and pea soup fog for the entire trip!  Thank goodness for the chart plotter (GPS).  Only touched the bottom once (lightly) and that was on an uncharted shoal that had built out into the otherwise well-marked Old House Channel.

The inspection was the most rigorous I’ve ever seen.  We had to remove the mast (easier said than done with a 65’ 2000-lb cypress trunk!), drop the rudder to repair a small spot in the transom and replace a few of the stainless chain plate bolts. A couple of fatal rigging failures in Hawaii a few years ago have caused the Coast Guard to pay very close attention to masts and everything that supports them. The exam, which usually takes no more than an hour, involved two inspectors going over every inch of the hull and rig for 2.5 hours.

At least with the mast at ground level I was able to sand and refinish it without risking a neck-breaking fall.  All that remains is to paint the bottom with copper anti-fouling paint, re-launch, re-rig and bring her home.  With any luck, that’ll all be done before the end of next week.